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A Covington subsidized housing complex is slated to close. What comes next for its residents?

City Heights Resident Council President Penny Blevins stands outside her office at the Covington housing complex
Nick Swartsell
City Heights Resident Council President Penny Blevins stands outside her office at the Covington housing complex.

There is only one road in and out of City Heights, the 76-acre sprawl of two-story red brick apartment buildings on a hill overlooking Covington. Inside the public housing development’s gates are a small store, a church and a community center used by its 750 residents.

All of this — including the residents — will be gone in the next few years. Last September, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the Housing Authority of Covington permission to empty and sell the property.

City Heights was built in 1953 as Ida Spence Homes during an era in which the U.S. government constructed large, dense developments to house low-income Americans. Experts agree that era is over. But what comes next for residents living in these remaining communities?

Leaving homes and families

The Covington Housing Authority says crime and access to jobs have continued to be issues at the complex and that it simply isn’t feasible to fund the repairs and updates needed there.

But the coming closure has left residents deeply concerned.

Toshia Harris has been at City Heights for 13 years and on its residents’ council for eight. She’s raising her children here in a four-bedroom unit. She says that despite the talk about crime in the complex and continued maintenance issues, she’ll miss the sense of security and community she found there. For her, the relative isolation is a plus, not a minus.

“We’re on top of the world right now," Harris says. "Our kids can go outside and play and we don’t have to worry about traffic hitting them. We don’t have to worry about somebody snatching them. Everybody knows everybody’s kids. That’s what we’re going to miss, just the security of everything.”

City Heights Resident Community Council President Penny Blevins has lived in the complex for four years. She says many who live here are very worried they won’t be able to find other housing in the communities they’re rooted in given the ongoing housing crisis.

“A lot of these folks, including myself, are from Covington, Newport. We’re not just getting dislocated from here. We’re leaving our homes, leaving our families.”

Blevins also says that concerns about crime and unemployment have been overblown. She says the vast majority of adult residents here work, follow laws and that all are worthy of respect.

"Don't put a label on us," she says. "We're part of Kenton County, we're part of Covington. We're not criminals."

Other problems persist

Residents and the housing authority agree there are problems — namely with the condition of the buildings at City Heights. Plumbing, electrical, climate control and structural issues are all regular complaints, and a number of residents can rattle off a list of issues with their units — leaks, clogs, odors and other problems.

Resident Dorothea Huff lived at City Heights for two decades and raised four children there. She moved away and then moved back almost six years ago. She says the conditions at the complex have gotten worse since she moved in the first time.

"The first time I lived here years ago, when you placed a call, they'd be here ASAP," Huff says. "Now, you've gotta wait. I've had electrical problems where a socket blew up. I've had a lot of plumbing issues, it's just crazy."

Housing Authority of Covington Executive Director Steve Arlinghaus says it will cost $50 million for basic maintenance and up to $84 million for the full updates City Heights needs. He says that money simply isn’t coming.

“So the only choice is for us to dispose of the properties and try to then find the current residents that we have adequate housing that is a lot better than what they have today.”

To do that, Arlinghaus says, the housing authority will meet with residents individually to assess their needs and wishes. Residents will get help with moving expenses and special housing vouchers that will allow them to move to any place in the country that accepts HUD subsidies like Section 8.

That’s pivotal, he says, since some residents may want to go to other cities like Cincinnati — and because the local market cannot absorb all the residents looking for new places to live.

“We don’t have enough housing stock in Northern Kentucky to accommodate the remaining 280 or so families who are left here, so the ability to move further away is paramount.”

The concern for residents like Harris is they won’t be able to find someone to accept the vouchers anywhere. And once the vouchers are issued, there is a 90-day window in which they must be used.

“So my next step at this point is trying to find Section 8 housing, except these vouchers… we can’t find nothing," Harris says. "Everywhere we call they don’t want to accept them.”

Rethinking subsidized housing

University of Cincinnati Urban Planning Professor Emeritus Dr. David Varady has studied public housing policy extensively. He says the shift away from complexes like City Heights has been in motion for a long time.

By the 1960s, just a few years after City Heights was built, the federal government was already beginning to rethink those kinds of developments due to funding constraints, concern about crime and racial segregation.

“There was a willingness to take a whole new look at the public housing program in the country,” Varady says.

Over the following decades, HUD’s budget shrank. At $42 billion, HUD’s 2019 budget is about half what the department got from Congress 40 years prior when adjusting for inflation. Cuts have been steep over the last decade.

Between 2010 and 2016, Congress gave HUD $1.6 billion less for public housing — a 20 percent reduction, according to federal Office of Management and Budget data. Funding for repairs specifically, at about $2 billion to $3 billion a year, is half of what it was two decades ago. Some estimates place the cost of fully repairing America’s public housing stock as high as $50 billion.

In the wake of these budget cuts and concerns about large-scale, concentrated housing developments, cash strapped local housing authorities began looking instead to public-private partnerships and voucher programs like Section 8, which pay private landlords to accept tenants who need help with rent.

Each year across the country, thousands of public housing units like those at City Heights are decommissioned due to their condition.

Dr. Varady says relocating from one of these older, large-scale public housing developments can be good — if a resident gets the proper support.

“With a really high-quality relocation program, people can be better off after than before," he says. "But unfortunately, there have been many cases where insufficient counseling is provided, and people end up worse off than before.”

The housing authority is working to make sure everyone at City Heights has a good outcome, Arlinghaus says, but he is aware that the transition will be difficult.

“We’re very sensitive to the fact that we’re uprooting lives of families that have in many cases have been here 20 or 30 years," he says. "That’s not pleasant to be doing. We’re trying to be as careful and cautious as we can.”

The Housing Authority has drafted a plan but hasn’t relocated anyone yet. Meanwhile, residents wait and consider their next moves. But Blevins says fear remains.

“There are about 350 plus children still here," she says. "We already have people underneath our bridges. We’re already having problems with homeless shelters. So where will our kids go?”

City Heights Resident Community Council President Penny Blevins; Housing Authority of Covington Executive Director Steve Arlinghaus; and University of Cincinnati School of Planning Professor Emeritus Dr. David Varady join Cincinnati Edition to discuss City Heights and housing policy.

Listen to Cincinnati Edition live at noon M-F. Audio for this segment will be uploaded after 4 p.m. ET.

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Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.